Mothers tend to get a bad rap in our media, whether it’s Disney movies where everyone’s mother is dead, the ever-present evil stepmothers in most fairy tales, or the general overall portrayal of mothers as either overbearing or abusive and neglectful. Sometimes the portrayal of mothers isn’t so much harmful as just poorly written. Mothers also suffer from being portrayed as serenely perfect or just never being given a personality at all. They are shunted to the side and made into basically a background character with a name in favor of the father taking the center stage (such is the case in Supernatural, Batman, Superman; in fact, a lot of comics fit the bill here). Perhaps it’s for this reason that fandoms tend to portray mothers so poorly in fanfiction. Like in regular media, fanfiction tends to show mothers as either abusive, dead, or nonexistent, even if the source material contradicts such things. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but we have discussed before how fandoms aren’t always kind in their portrayal of women, and mothers are certainly no exception. And today I want to talk about the Star Trek fandom’s portrayal of Winona Kirk in particular.
I have been reading a lot of Star Trek fanfiction recently, and I have noticed a frankly upsetting trend. Many fans, it seems, like to cast Winona Kirk, James Kirk’s mother, in a very negative light. Basically, the run of the mill fanfic seems to cast Winona as abusive via neglect. Fanfics often describe her as being so devastated by her husband’s death in the 2009 Star Trek film that she couldn’t even bear to look at her sons anymore. She quickly remarries a man she doesn’t really love so that there’s someone to take care of her kids and then abandons her children to bury herself in her work. All the while she doesn’t realize that her new husband is abusing her kids while she is working in Starfleet. I have a real issue with this portrayal of Winona, especially since she is only shown in a favorable light in her brief moments in the film. Winona Kirk doesn’t really get any play in the Star Trek original series (TOS). Even her name wasn’t considered canon until the reboot movie made Winona official in 2009. We don’t get to see much more of Winona in the 2009 Star Trek either, but it’s certainly more that TOS ever gave us. The movie starts with the USS Kelvin being attacked by Nero. George Kirk, James Kirk’s father and Winona’s husband, is forced to stay on the USS Kelvin in order to save the rest of the evacuating crew. Winona is shown giving birth in one of the escape pods while tearfully talking to her husband before he dies. It’s probably one of the saddest and most touching scenes in the movie. I won’t lie and claim I don’t tear up every time I watch it. After this moment that is it. That is all we ever seen of her again in the movies, other than briefly hearing her voice in Star Trek Into Darkness when Kirk is dying.
She is mentioned only once more when we see a young James Kirk getting yelled at over the phone by his stepfather. While yelling at Kirk, he says that Kirk can’t get away with doing what he wants just because his mom is off-planet, implying that Winona is still working in Starfleet, though in what capacity is never stated. J.J. Abrams has stated that in an original version of the script Winona was part of the angry phone call during Kirk’s joyride, but Abrams felt it portrayed her in too much a negative light and so removed it from the script. Yet despite this attempt not to portray Winona negatively, the fans still tend to characterize her poorly in fanfiction. While there may be some misogyny to blame for Winona’s portrayal in fanfiction, that might not entirely be the case, and some if not much of the blame should be on the source material for giving us so little of Winona to begin with.
Let’s compare Winona to another Star Trek mother who isn’t given much screen time: Amanda Grayson. Amanda Grayson, Spock’s mother, is portrayed extremely favorably by the fans. So what’s the difference here? Well, really, it’s both screen time and how the character was developed in both the Star Trek reboot and in TOS. We only get a few scenes with Amanda in the movie, once when she is comforting Spock before he finds out if he as been accepted into the Vulcan Science Academy, and again when Spock returns to try and save her before Vulcan is destroyed, though she tragically dies before being beamed aboard the ship. The first scene we see with Amanda we have her telling Spock she will be proud of him no matter what he does, and considering that everyone loves Spock, that of course endears her to fans.
However, I think when straight-up comparing Amanda and Winona’s scenes in the movie, there isn’t much difference. But casual fans aren’t writing fanfic, and most fanfic writers have probably seen all the deleted scenes from the 2009 Star Trek movie. You know, the ones with all the character development that were cut so Abrams could add more lens flares? Out of those deleted scenes we get at least two more scenes with Amanda which develop her character a lot more. The only other scene we get with the Kirk family shows James and his brother being abused by their stepfather, and no other sign of Winona.
On top of this, fans of the new movies are also drawing on The Original Series to write their fanfic, and Amanda both makes an appearance in TOS and is often referenced by Spock. She is also seen in the movies from The Original Series and helps Spock come to terms with his humanity. So while Amanda still makes fewer appearances than her husband, Sarek, she was still given more overall screen time than Winona, whose name wasn’t even canon before the new movies. We see Amanda as a loving wife and mother, as someone who doesn’t take any shit (when she is shown fighting with Sarek and Spock both in the new movies and in TOS), and as someone who deals with prejudice from Vulcan society. Thanks to TOS we know other little details about her that make her more interesting. She read Spock Lewis Carroll when he was a child, she was a teacher, and she even worked on developing the universal translator. By comparison, we know next to nothing about Winona. We know she loved George, we know she had two sons, we know she’s in Starfleet, and in the new movies that she remarried. That’s it. So it’s no wonder that the view the fans take of Winona is poor when we only see her sad over her husband’s death, and then we never see her again and know that Kirk is being abused by his stepfather.
However, that is not to say that I’m letting fans off the hook here. Fanfiction, in the minds of all of us here at LGG&F, should be transformative. The hope is that fanfiction will not just be a creative outlet but an outlet for minority voices to tell stories and fix the poor portrayal of many minority groups in the media. Just because little is known about Winona doesn’t mean we need to cast her in a negative light. Even J.J. Abrams, whom I would hardly call a feminist, made a point to try and not portray her negatively.
In some ways I think Winona gets shit for not being a traditional mother. One thing that always irked me about Amanda is that she is never shown as having a career after she marries Sarek. That is partly because of the era-typical sexism of TOS and partly because the new movie didn’t get into what career, if any, Amanda ever had. So she comes off as a housewife taking care of her husband and son. There is nothing wrong with that, obviously, but that might explain some of her sexist portrayals. It’s possible many fans view Winona as a bad parent because we don’t see her raising Kirk. She more than likely did raise him, but was still working for Starfleet and so had to leave him on Earth often. It seems that fans feel Winona should have changed or quit her job to raise her family, especially after George died. It’s also implied that if George had lived Kirk’s life would be better (because it was in TOS), but as far as his parents being around, TOS Kirk was also often left on Earth with neither of his parents. In TOS Kirk mentions spending much of his time as a kid on his uncle’s farm, presumably because his parents were off-planet. So it’s not like Winona would have been around more and she, for all we know, could have been the main breadwinner of the family, since it’s never stated what her new husband does.
And finally we have the idea that Winona should have somehow known that her sons were being abused by her new husband. I view this as a type of victim blaming. Jim and Sam were probably too afraid to tell their mother what was going on, and no matter how often Winona was around, abusers are good at putting on a friendly face to people they want to impress and don’t want to know about their activities. Even if Winona was home ninety percent of the time, it is unlikely that she would have been able to stop her husband from abusing her kids, at least not immediately.
In the end I don’t think fans are strictly to blame for Winona’s poor portrayal in fanfiction, but they certainly aren’t guiltless either. And I think that sexism is definitely at play here, especially when the fathers in Star Trek are more often than not portrayed favorably or at least with much more complexity. The writers of Star Trek don’t give us much information about Winona; she is practically a blank character that fans can potentially write however they want, so it would be nice to see a more nuanced portrayal of her character instead of just some sexist caricature to add to Kirk’s manpain.